Ellen Kullman, the CEO and chairwoman of DuPont, will deliver the keynote Commencement speech in June 2014, MIT is expected to announce today. She will be the fourth speaker in five years at the helm of a science or technology company.
“At DuPont, we have used the power of science and our knowledge of the markets to transform industries for over two centuries,” Kullman told MIT’s news office. “I am honored to welcome the graduating class of MIT to join the global community of solvers, inventors, and leaders as we all work together to solve the world’s toughest challenges.”
In 1988, Kullman joined the company that brought the world neoprene, nylon, and Kevlar, and she became the chemical giant’s first female CEO in 2009. Since then, Forbes and Fortune have listed Kullman among the world’s most powerful women.
As CEO, Kullman has expressed her intentions to make DuPont more than a chemical company. In 2011 DuPont acquired Danisco, which produced food ingredients and other bioproducts, and last month DuPont spun off a major chemicals division that produced Teflon, the non-stick coating, and titanium dioxide, the pigment that makes paper white.
“The first 100 years we made explosives, the next 100 was modern chemistry and about 20 years ago we started in biotechnology. The next 100 years is going to be about integrating the sciences,” she told Forbes magazine.
DuPont has sponsored more than $50 million in research at dozens of MIT labs since 2000, records show. MIT President L. Rafael Reif said that a “sense of kindred spirit” of improving the world through science has informed this collaboration.
The final selection of the speaker is the president’s decision, according to Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80, who chairs the Commencement committee. A subcommittee that includes faculty members as well as undergraduate and graduate student leaders is responsible for supplying a list of around 10 suggested names.
The shortlist was drawn up after Class of 2014 President Anika Gupta ’14 solicited names from students. Gupta said that the most popular choices were President Barack Obama and actor Robert Downey Jr., who portrays Marvel’s Iron Man. But Gupta said that she was happy to see the president choose speakers “clearly tailored to MIT graduates” in the past few years. “I think it makes sense for them to bring in and have us listen to some of the most inspiring engineering leaders of today,” she said.
Undergraduate Association President Sidhanth P. Rao ’14, who declined to say whether Kullman was in the shortlist or among the students’ suggestions, said that he saw parallels between MIT’s latest initiatives and its Commencement speaker choices. Salman A. Khan ’98, founder of Khan Academy, spoke to graduates in 2012 soon after the announcement of edX, the online education initiative founded by Harvard and MIT. The selection of Kullman comes on the heels of the formation of Reif’s new Innovation Initiative, which seeks to boost innovation in the manufacturing sector.
Unlike other colleges, MIT does not pay Commencement speakers or award them honorary degrees. “We want speakers who are motivated by the opportunity to speak to an MIT audience,” Grimson wrote in an email to The Tech.
Graduate Student Council President Caleb Waugh told the MIT News Office that he saw Kullman’s efforts to further science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the U.S. as aligned with MIT’s mission
Before joining DuPont as a marketing manager in 1988, Kullman worked for Westinghouse and General Electric. According to her company biography, Kullman moved steadily up the ranks at DuPont over the years, becoming vice president of a mineral products group in 1995, leading the safety resources and bio-based materials groups by 1999, assuming the role of executive vice president in 2006, and overseeing company growth in emerging markets by 2008. Kullman holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and a master’s degree in management from Northwestern University.